Naked City

Curb Appeal

Go on, we dare you. Just try to find Café Mundi, located at 1704 E. Fifth Street. The cozy little East Austin cafe, already relegated to near-invisibility by its placement on a gravel section of East Fifth across from the railroad tracks, was further cut off from the outside world last week, when neighbor Diane Valera threw up a fence between her property on East Sixth, which houses the restaurant El Rincon, and Mundi, owned by Valera's sister (and former planning commissioner) Kathy Vasquez-Revilla. But while the fence may have brought the problem to a boiling point, the issues that led to its construction have been brewing since at least the 1980s, when the property was sold into the warring Vasquez family.

Originally, the land was all part of a single lot facing Sixth Street, but at some point (no one is quite sure when) it was divided up into two smaller tracts -- one facing Sixth Street, one facing an unpaved portion of Fifth. The Vasquez family bought the property in 1985. For at least the past year and a half, patrons of Café Mundi and four other businesses on East Fifth had gotten to their destinations by driving through Valera's lot (formerly the site of Mexico Tipico), which was the most accessible entrance thanks to a curb put up on Fifth Street by the city of Austin when Plaza Saltillo, located at Fifth and Comal, was built in 1999. "Today there would be a lot more restrictions as to where's the access to the site going to be," says project manager Paul Medrano, who worked on the Saltillo project (of which both the feuding sisters, incidentally, were proponents).

According to city public works assistant director Matthew Kite, the city put up the curb because it didn't want cars driving too close to the railroad tracks along Fifth, which is a gravel road between Comal and Chicon. Café Mundi owner Jessica Nieri says she was told that the curb, which leads to a sidewalk that goes nowhere, was put up for safety reasons: The city "said they didn't want overflow parking for Plaza Saltillo going there."

But during a recent visit to Café Mundi, no one seemed shy about driving over the curb and down a block to the restaurant's parking lot. "Everyone who knows it's there will go over the curb," Nieri says, especially during the lunchtime rush. But at night, Nieri worries, customers who don't know to go around the block to Chicon and onto the unmarked gravel portion of East Fifth might just turn around and head home. "I have noticed a drop-off" in customers, she says. Texas Bicycle Coalition employee Eric Anderson, whose group rents space from Vasquez-Revilla, says "Obviously, this street needs to be opened up … especially now that these four businesses and a nonprofit organization have no access from Sixth Street." Medrano and Kite say they're looking into the problem, but have no immediate plans to remove the curb. "Our overriding concern still is, if we removed that curb and the sidewalk, we're saying to the general public that it's okay to come along and park there," Medrano says.

None of this would have been such a big problem, of course, had Valera not decided she wanted to sell her property: Since the easement off Sixth Street could be considered a deed restriction, Valera -- who did not return calls for comment -- put up a fence between her land and her sister's last week, leaving no direct access to Mundi's lot from Sixth Street. And none of that might have been a problem had the property never been subdivided in the first place, and had a business complex not been built on the back half of the lot, where access has always been difficult and where some businesses may extend into the city's right-of-way. Medrano says the city is currently working to determine where, exactly, the city's ROW is.

A published city plan for East Fifth Street calls for the road to be widened and turned into a "major arterial" from I-35 to Chicon, where Café Mundi is located. But Kite says that portion of East Fifth was "really never built [to be] a road" in the first place. The road has never been properly paved, and flooding and potholes have long plagued the block where Café Mundi sits. Curbs and gutters were added and later removed due to engineering problems. Nieri and Anderson implored City Council members last Thursday to spend some of the $30 million being returned to the city by Capital Metro to pave and open up East Fifth.

Vasquez-Revilla herself has spent years, including six as a planning commissioner, pushing the city to pave the road, which she speculates the city may have left unpaved in part to make it easier to lay the fiber-optic lines which run along that part of Fifth Street. (Vasquez-Revilla says one tenant, Williams Communication, tried to pave the road but was stopped by the city because of questions about the width of the right-of-way.)

One potential problem is that every plan floated for the road so far -- including the crosstown freeway, light rail, and the planned Crosstown Bikeway which would pass along that stretch of Fifth Street -- could require tearing up any pavement that was laid, and thus wasting potentially hundreds of thousands of city dollars. The specifics of any plan would also have to work with plans for the bikeway, which has $3.2 million in funding and is currently being designed, says Anderson, who was among the bikeway's major proponents. The right-of-way may also be too narrow, Medrano says, to accommodate a road, though Vasquez-Revilla insists that "the shoulders are wide enough that there's enough room for a one-way street, a sidewalk, and the crosstown bikeway."

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Café Mundi, Diane Valera, Kathy Vasquez-Revilla, Jessica Nieri, Paul Medrano, Matthew Kite, Plaza Saltillo, Eric Anderson, Texas Bicycle Coalition, Crosstown Bikeway

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